Milwaukee to Montana: 28 hours on a train

August 25, 2021
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AFTER the great city of Chicago, I was headed on a short stretch of railway line to Milwaukee. It was only two hours, and the train was pretty busy!

Milwaukee is in the state of Wisconsin, somewhat further north on Lake Michigan.

I stayed outside of the main city in a place called the Crowne Plaza. I visited the Milwaukee Art Museum and saw an amazing display of American photographic art from the 1960s: a new era really. They had also encapsulated the modern art from around the world based on the theme of Pablo Picasso, which was unique.

I got a taxi back to my accommodation and had a good conversation with the driver. She was quite happy to talk to me about her life, she was a single mother of two children who only earned $500 a week. That may sound fine to some but let’s put it into perspective, on average an apartment in Milwaukee costs $1225 a month.

Milwaukee was an interesting town, but it was time to gear up and get ready for a whopping 28 hours on the train, the Empire Builder. The Empire Builder is a passenger train run from Chicago towards the Pacific coast as part of the Great Northern Railway circuit.

On the ride from Milwaukee to West Glacier in Montana, where I planned to get off, I met this professional guy who lived in Milwaukee. We discussed homelessness there and he told me every day he was confronted by homeless people, and he couldn’t afford to give money all the time. So, what he and his friends did was they got together and started giving them food, and he always gave them a bottle of water and a granola bar.

I mentioned to him that I had noticed some racial tensions and he agreed saying that he thought, “Milwaukee was a very segregated town.” I’ve heard that a few times from the locals I spoke to, as well.

In fact, Milwaukee has the odd distinction of being the most segregated big city in the USA even though it is almost as far north as Canada and located in the historically progressive state of Wisconsin, known a hundred years ago as the leading ‘social laboratory’ of the United States.

Milwaukee Art Museum, which looks like a sailboat.

Rolling on through Minnesota and the Dakotas on the way to Montana was interesting, with some very stunning scenery. One thing that hit me as we travelled through all these towns was the emptiness of some areas, particularly outside of Milwaukee. Complete towns that just looked uninhabited.

There were trains with 300 carriages picking up grain from farms with silos. It was amazing to see. I was also amazed at all the oil being extracted and transported by train. This is obviously why there is the pressure to build

the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). People fear the DAPL will leak and pollute groundwater and have been protesting against it on those grounds; but on the other hand, when the oil is being transported by railway cars, which derail from time to time, there is always the chance of a fiery and fatal inferno of the kind that happened in Lac Mégantic in Québec in 2014. Rail is an inferior method of transportation in every way for a dangerous liquid that is going to be consumed in huge quantities every day. I guess the real issue in the whole DAPL dispute, which I’ll be getting to shortly, is whether America should be trying to expand oil production in the first place in view of climate change.

The twin cities of Minneapolis-Saint Paul straddled two states. A same- sex couple I met on the train told me that the twin cities were the coldest in the United States! They were also among the most gay-friendly. I wanted to visit them, but I wasn’t going to have time since the national parks out west were about to reduce their hours and services for winter. I wanted to get the western parks before that happened. So, I went straight through.

It was interesting to be a passive viewer through my window, watching towns slide by. Some thriving, and others not so much. I stared out the window for most of the morning.

That train ride through the Dakotas was fascinating, as you could see all the drilling rigs puncturing the landscape. Surrounding them in blank vast countryside there were buildings and rough makeshift camps for the workers. A woman told me her son had told her not to get off anywhere near Willeston in South Dakota. The roughnecks there were extra-rough, apparently.

I met a guy on his way to Portland, Oregon. He told me that in the old days the government had offered free land to anyone prepared to plant trees because there hadn’t been any trees when the first settlers arrived, just windswept lonesome prairie. The first settlers were called sodbusters, because they built their houses out of blocks of dirt, and there hadn’t been much to burn to keep warm in the thirty-below winters either.

I also met a couple who had retired from Michigan. She was a teacher, who said that teachers had great retirement plans. There was a group of thirty ex-teachers who were being led by a tour guide on the train. They were going to Seattle as part of a tour all over the US, which was pretty amazing. They were in Sleeper Class. She said that her husband suffered from diabetes and so that made it hard for them to travel to other countries.

It really is amazing who you do meet on the train, I mean in the course of 28 hours sitting on one you do strike up some interesting conversations. I met a guy from Seattle whose parents had moved to Dakota, who said there were no employment opportunities. He said there were only two seasons, winter and summer, and nothing in between. He said his daughter liked the four seasons of more regular parts and wouldn’t want to live there.

The train tracks in this part of the USA are not owned by Amtrak and it’s not unusual for the Amtrak trains to be around ten hours late because some freight train or oil train has been given priority.

I wasn’t really impressed with all the oil drilling, since I do think climate change is for real. There were a few people talking about the protests against the DAPL at Standing Rock Reservation, which caught my attention.

The guy from Seattle told me that Montana would have an interesting election outcome — that they tended to vote one way for the Senate and another way for the House of Representatives, and that they always put a dollar each way.

The scenery was stunning, I mean it almost felt unreal, looking at it all slide by like a diorama behind a glass panel. It was quite a harsh and dry looking landscape, but I loved it.

I got a bit tired of being on the train and was itching to get off and go wandering through the natural beauty of Montana. People talked about the danger of bears and the like, but I had already thought that I would go trekking in Montana, no matter what.

I got off at the Whitefish Amtrak Station, near Glacier National Park. I didn’t want to stay in camping accommodation, which is why I got off at Whitefish, the largest and most organized town in those parts.

When I arrived, there were people waiting at the stations to catch trains that were up to 20 hours late! This was all due to slips, freight trains and not having the right of way. We had had to wait for freight trains as well, but fortunately it had never taken that long.


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